Sunday, February 18, 2007
AGAINST THE DAY
"Are you kind deities? or wrathful deities?"
So I got the new Pynchon novel. In the weeks leading up to the publication date, I had been clearing my literary calendar, not getting too involved in anything too big or long. I’d re-read THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, for example, a good clear direct and above all short little book that was just what I needed. Then a few days before the Pynchon was released, I was killing some time in a chain bookstore and found myself checking out a series of detective thrillers by Ian Rankin, who’s been on my radar for quite some time now. I picked up one called RESURRECTION MEN, and soon realized that I’d been standing there reading the opening chapter and feeling no desire to stop. I went ahead and got the book, and was enjoying it a lot.
I managed to get my hands on a copy of the new Pynchon a couple of days early, an accommodating local indie bookstore offered to sell me the copy that was behind the counter. Evidently a staff person had gotten the book out early and had been paging through it. I started reading the book on the subway home, and have had an odd reaction to it. Basically, there are parts of it that I’ve liked a good deal, and there have been parts that I’ve not liked a good deal. I’ve come close to putting it down altogether a few times, but I know myself well enough to know that it would be better for me to complete one reading that I didn’t like very much than to stop completely. This way, if I ever decide to read the book again I’ll have a better chance of getting more out of it.
I’m not sure there is going to be a second reading, though. I’m just not feeling enough excitement about the book to make me terribly enthusiastic about going through the effort a second time. There are plenty of big old books that have made considerably more sense on a second or third reading, things like JR and DAVID COPPERFIELD (most of Dickens, actually) and INFINITE JEST and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW and MASON & DIXON, but all of those books had me in their grip in a way that AGAINST THE DAY doesn’t have me. I’m looking forward to being through with AGAINST THE DAY so I can move on to something just plain shorter.
I never did finish the Rankin book. It started well, but I was getting impatient with it long before I had to put it down to concentrate on AGAINST THE DAY. I’ve got a couple of other Rankins, and will be getting to them at some point.
I’m having to do some serious examination of my possessions. There’s just way too much stuff in that apartment. I overheard a woman in a bookstore discussing her personal library, and she said something that has stuck with me ever since, something about how you have to ask yourself if you own the books, or if the books own you. Soon after I did some pruning of my accumulated VHS tapes, and was brought face to face with the Folly of Pure Ownership for Ownership’s Sake. After all, how many copies of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE does one man really need?
FYI – I had four copies. On VHS. Taped from a variety of sources over the years.
I don’t have so many multiple copies of books, but I do seem to pick stuff up. Occasionally I purge long-unread stuff, like those copies of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE that seem to pop onto my shelves every few years when I decide that maybe I’ll give the book One Last Shot. I’m still not sure how on earth a copy of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY got onto my shelves, or even into my apartment, but it won’t be there much longer.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
THE COAST OF UTOPIA
“Just your ordinary nine-act play.” Robert Benchley in re: STRANGE INTERLUDE.
As SALVAGE, the third and mercifully final part of Tom Stoppard’s magnum opus THE COAST OF UTOPIA staggered to a close, Mr. Benchley’s words popped into my head, and I kind of smiled to myself. Apart from a few moments featuring Josh Hamilton and the sublime Martha Plimpton, there wasn’t a lot else to smile about.
Mr. Stoppard’s mammoth trilogy about the intellectual history of the 19th Century and the men who laid the philosophic foundation for the Russian Revolution starts well. The first play, VOYAGE, was a very entertaining evening in the theatre, stimulating and thought-provoking and moving. The acting was impeccable, and surprising. Billy Crudup’s performance as Bellinsky, the Russian literary critic who has a bad habit of putting his foot in his mouth was a revelation, a real change from the terribly stiff work I’d seen him deliver before. Ethan Hawke was having a grand time as the wildly enthusiastic Michael Bakunin, veering hilariously from one philosophy to another. Director Jack O’Brien keeps the action and the talk lively, and pulls off some wonderful little coups de theatre. If I found there to be a few too many blonde Bakunin sisters to keep track of, I didn’t let it ruin my evening.
What can I say? I liked it a lot. I didn’t feel terribly lost, considering the complexity of the play and the fact that I know next to nothing about Russian history. I seriously considered buying the T-shirt. I was looking forward to Part II, SHIPWRECK.
The first act of SHIPWRECK lived up to the promise of VOYAGE, but there were some danger signs, mostly involving casting. As the trilogy continues, one specific character begins to dominate, a man named Alexander Herzen, unfortunately played by an actor named Brian F. O’Byrne.
It would be no ordinary actor who can make this character engaging, at least as written by Stoppard. The role of Herzen is fiendishly difficult: lots and lots of long monologues that are supposed to explain complex philosophic positions and give lots and lots of historic background, interspersed with scenes dealing with mundane things like his wife’s infidelity and other domestic issues. And Mr. O’Byrne is simply not up to it. He is unable to make me give a damn about the man he is playing, or even to make me believe that he has a vague idea of what the hell he is supposed to be talking about. He might as well be reciting pi. I have never come so close to standing up and screaming at an actor to please shut the fuck up as when I sat writhing through O’Byrne’s unforgivably inept handling of the final scenes of the increasingly aptly entitled SHIPWRECK.
And it didn’t get better in SALVAGE. If SHIPWRECK was at least half interesting, at least until O’Byrne started jabbering, SALVAGE is a near-total failure. Ceaseless senseless oral diarrhea of historical data by O’Byrne, more characters introduced for a few minutes and then never heard from again, and less and less of actual interest. There’s the occasional sign of life provided by the return of Ethan Hawke as Bakunin (Hawke’s Bakunin is, by the way, the only character in the entire trilogy who gets convincingly older as time allegedly passes), Jennifer Ehle as Herzen’s housekeeper, and most especially by Josh Hamilton and Martha Plimpton as the writer Ogarev and his wife. Hamilton and Plimpton play the only interesting and engaging characters in this part of the trilogy. They actually seem to have an interest and affection for each other, and their interest in each other is infectious; you can feel the audience in the Beaumont start to react to something actually approaching energy on that stage.
It doesn’t last long. O’Byrne’s Herzen is soon gabbling again, and the play finally finally finally ends, with some ultimate gibberish from Herzen about how the important thing is to do the best you can in the period you’re in, and a really insulting final line: “There’s a storm coming.” Get it boys and girls? The storm of THE REVOLUTION!!!!!
There’s a sense of exhaustion to the proceedings, not just in the audience but onstage. Hawke and Ehle and Hamilton and Plimpton apart, the rest of the cast don’t register as clearly as they have in the earlier segments, at least partly because Stoppard is so busy trying to cram so much history into the play that the characters never come alive as anything other than names to be heard about once or twice and then forgotten about. Even the direction seems tired: the final tableau and musical flourish reminded me of nothing so much as Disney’s Hall of Presidents.
So that was it. Was it worth it? Yes and no. I’m glad to have seen it, certainly, but I can only say I enjoyed about half of it. My brother once described reading Norman Mailer’s big book HARLOT’S GHOST in this way: “The first 650 pages were wonderful.” I kind of feel the same way about THE COAST OF UTOPIA: the first 4 and a half hours were wonderful. That the remaining 4 and a half hours felt more like another 12 and a half hours is a big problem, one that Stoppard and O’Brien haven’t come anywhere near solving.